We were busy as bees at our meeting yesterday, but, when we left, we were all as happy as clams.
Ummmm–Wait a minute.
I worked in a supermarket meat department when I was a young person, suited up in a white lab-style coat, unruly mop covered with a hairnet, wrestling clammy chicken parts into bags, flipping stretchy plastic around cuts of beef and pork chops. And one of my early morning jobs was to check on the clams.
Seafood had its own little section of display case, and because seafood is fragile and easy spoiled, we paid that section a great deal of attention. I would run out, check the ‘sell by’ dates on the packets of fish fillets, glean the aged ones, and then I’d turn my attention to the packaged clams. You wanted your clams to be living when purchased, of course. But clams–robust or deceased,–all look pretty much the same, so I had a simple way of testing for life. I’d tap the open clams on their little shells. If the shell slowly slid closed, I knew that clam was still among the living. If the shell stayed resolutely open, that clam went back with me to the meat-room disposal bin.
I performed that little test dozens and dozens of mornings, and I have to tell you: not once did I think any of the clams, living or dead, looked anything remotely near happy. Happy as a CLAM? Where did that expression come from?
When I posed this question to my students, often they’d scoff at me. They’d never heard the ‘happy as a clam’ saying. In THEIR part of the world, someone would tell me, people said ‘happy as a LARK,’ and then they’d all sit back, satisfied, probably thinking: So there, picky teacher: a saying that makes SENSE.
Ah, I would say, and I would hold out the chalk to the lark-y student. Come up and draw me a picture of a lark.
The student would look puzzled. I don’t know what a lark looks like, he or she would say. But it’s the song that makes it sound happy.
Huh. Not once in a LONG career of teaching could any student tell us what larksong sounded like.
“Why,” I would ask, “do we use a saying when we don’t really know what it means?”
There’d be a little silence and then, finally, someone would offer, “Because it’s easy?”
Easy it may be to write words that are worn soft and threadbare with use, but exciting or vivid? Probably not. Lots and lots of English sayings, for example, come into our lexicon from Shakespeare. They were probably so apt, so exciting, right at that time–back in 1598, or whatever–, that people grabbed them, said, “Yes! This is EXACTLY what I mean!’ and used that phrase over and over.
But maybe the phrases aren’t quite as appropriate for now. Maybe we need to be the ones coining phrases, putting things so succinctly that our readers say, “Ahhh, that’s beautiful. It’s perfect.” And then our readers use that phrase in their own conversations and their own writing because, let’s face it: it’s hard–maybe impossible–to think of a better way to put it.
Our words, so apt, so true, bump the antiquated phrases out of common usage. Hah! Originality prevails, for a while.
Using a cliche doesn’t tell the reader what I saw or heard or smelled or felt. It just gives a general notion of what lots of people kind of mean when they say whatever the old chestnut might be. It’s a secondhand way of describing things, and a lost chance to express a fresh and personal point of view.
So maybe….maybe, we should start making up our own individual lexicons of sayings.
How would you fill in this blank?
Happy as a _______________…
I think of coming home to my crazy little dog, a terrier mix (rescued from bad owners) whom we met at the animal shelter eight years ago. That dog LOVES me, and when I come home after any kind of absence, she shows it. She runs around and around my legs. She jumps up and tags me with both paws on my hip: “You’re It, Mom!” She warbles, excitedly and continuously, a high-pitched stream of wobbly noise that obviously has great meaning to her.
Happy as my rescue dog when I come home from a weekend away—that’s an image that brings a concept alive for me.
What is the biggest, best example of HAPPY that you can think of? Think of your own experience, not popular media or what other people say. When was the last time YOU were blissfully, unreservedly happy?
Try to take that example and fill in the blank. And don’t feel stuck with the format–take away the ‘happy as a____’ and just plunge into that description. Suddenly, the page lights up with that you-particular sunshine.
We can darken the page with anger or sadness, too. Instead of being angry as hornets, let’s draw on our own experiences. What makes you really angry–a thoughtless driver cutting you off? A parent mistreating a child? Someone who deliberately hurts an innocent animal? Show us what angers you, and you’ll not only communicate the anger, you’ll reveal an important facet of yourself.
There was an email going around several years ago that explained the stories behind several cliches–do you remember that? For instance, “it’s raining cats and dogs,” is said to come from the days of thatched roofs. The animals would climb to the roof and snuggle in to the thick, cozy thatch at night–imagine those warm fuzzy bodies snoring gently over your head. But then the rain would come, and the thatch would grow wet and slippery, and that warm fuzzy bundle would come tumbling out–fwomp!–onto your pallet.
Raining cats and dogs, indeed,–a wonderful image. But not one that has any relevance today. I bet we can create better word pictures with vivid images from our own experience. And hey, there’s no sense in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, either.
I read somewhere that there are really only ten story plots–that we tell the same stories over and over and over. What’s the point? We’ve heard it all before.
BUT. We haven’t heard it the way YOU can tell it, filtered through the lens of your experience and vocabulary and dialect, polished in the tumbler of your values and beliefs and passions. If we’re going to take the time, make the effort, to tell our stories, we should use that fresh, original voice that only we can speak with. Cliches, those careworn, thoughtless phrases we toss off, are someone else’s voice, speaking through the fog and dust of the ages.
Let’s let our true voices ring out. Let’s squish a cliche–or write a new one–today!